Akira Kurosawa is regularly cited as one of the most influential pioneers of world cinema by students, scholars and film fans who continue to find new meaning in his seminal work. Known for making unforgettable classics such as Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s name has become synonymous with the samurai genre and Japanese period films.
While Kurosawa did work extensively in those domains, there’s another genre where his unique artistic sensibilities led to the creation of thoroughly engaging cinematic experiences. Through the highly stylised frameworks of film noir, Kurosawa explored the socioeconomic conditions of a post-war Japan like never before.
Although film noir is usually associated with the American understanding of the term, noir cinema was also being formulated in other parts of the world including Japan. There were many precursors but Kurosawa was one of the first Japanese masters who provided the necessary momentum to the genre which appealed to the artists of the Japanese New Wave as well.
In order to understand Akira Kurosawa’s contributions to the film noir genre, we take a look at some of his best work below.
Ranking the film noir quartet by Akira Kurosawa:
4. Drunken Angel (1948)
Drunken Angel wasn’t just Kurosawa’s first entry into the world of film noir but it also marked the first time that he collaborated with his most famous creative partner – Toshiro Mifune. Even in this early film, Mifune’s on-screen presence is nothing short of commanding.
The film features Mifune as a low-level member of the yakuza who is diagnosed with tuberculosis and is forced to re-evaluate his lifestyle. Drunken Angel has now been recognised as the first work to look at the conditions of the yakuza in the post-war period which is why this film remains important even though it is bogged down by melodrama.
3. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
One of Kurosawa’s later explorations of film noir after his initial duo, The Bad Sleep Well is not only a visually powerful crime drama but also a sociopolitical critique. It follows Mifune as he climbs his way up the corrupt corporate ladder in order to uncover the truth behind his father’s death.
Incorporating elements from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well as American film noir conventions, The Bad Sleep Well is an intriguing work by the Japanese master which manages to construct a scathing critique of the widespread corruption in post-war Japan.
2. Stray Dog (1949)
Out of his first two film noir works, it was Stray Dog that got the most attention and played a vital role in shaping the future of Japanese noir. Focusing on the societal conditions of the country during that period, Stray Dog is an insightful sociological analysis of crime in the context of poverty.
Mifune stars as a rookie detective whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket on a public bus. In order to prevent its sale on the black market, he goes undercover to retrieve it but he discovers that the man who has his gun is just an ex-soldier like him who never adjusted after the horrors of the war.
1. High and Low (1963)
Kurosawa’s greatest achievements are often restricted to the samurai genre but High and Low must be one of the finest films he ever made. Based on a novel by Ed McBain, the film follows the misadventures of a rich executive in a shoe company who is presented with an interesting moral dilemma.
A criminal tries to blackmail him by kidnapping his son but they discover later that it was his chauffeur’s son who was taken. Kurosawa patiently films the emotional and political distress as this capitalist (who was gearing up for a major business deal) is forced to lose everything he has.
The film perfects the genre manipulations by keeping the audience on the edge of their seats while also indulging in an extensive commentary about crime and class divides. By the end, we know that we have just witnessed one of the most sublime pieces of filmmaking by an auteur at the very top of his form.